Presidential candidates come up repeatedly in final debate between Hassan, Ayotte

  • Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte (left) speaks as her Democratic challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, listens during a televised debate Wednesday. The two traded jabs over the presidential nominees. Jim Cole / ap

  • Candidates for U.S. Senate Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte,left and Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan are seen during a live televised debate Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole/POOL) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Thursday, November 03, 2016

The presidential candidates loomed large in Wednesday night’s final U.S. Senate debate, as Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Maggie Hassan found themselves having to explain their support for their respective party nominees.

When the two stood on a debate stage in early October, Ayotte was still supporting her party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Just a few days later, she renounced that support after the leak of a video showing Trump bragging about groping and kissing women without their permission.

During Wednesday night’s WMUR debate, Ayotte was asked why she hadn’t withdrawn her support from Trump earlier, after multiple comments he had made about people with disabilities, minorities and the Gold Star family of Army Capt. Humayun Khan.

Ayotte’s tepid support for Trump has been attacked by Republicans and Democrats alike; the senator had repeatedly said she would “support but not endorse” the nominee.

“I called Donald Trump out on numerous occasions, including the examples you gave,” Ayotte said. “My actions speak for themselves. I’ve actually taken the action of saying that I’m not going to be voting for our nominee.”

Hassan hit her opponent on that Wednesday night, saying Ayotte still supports Trump’s political agenda.

“She can try to distance herself as she did on multiple occasions,” Hassan said, “but, in fact, she said on 35 different occasions that she supported him. She called him a role model for our children. And then when the political winds seemed to change, that’s when she changed her position.”

But Hassan also found herself having to defend Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, after recent reports that the FBI reopened its investigation into the use of Clinton’s private email server.

Though little information is known about whether a newly discovered batch of emails from a Clinton aide contains anything from the former secretary of state, Ayotte seized the chance to paint Hassan as a candidate who would support Clinton no matter what.

“She has not stepped away from Hillary Clinton on one thing,” Ayotte said.

Saying she hoped to get more information from the FBI on what the new batch of emails contained, Hassan also refuted the characterization that she in lockstep with Clinton.

“I have said repeatedly that her use of emails was a mistake. She has said so as well,” Hassan said. “She has apologized, I think that’s appropriate.”

Recent weeks have seen a hotly contested Senate race grow even more contentious. Polls remain tight; a recent polling average from Real Clear Politics shows Ayotte up by 1.8 percent, but it says the race is a toss-up.

During Wednesday’s debate, the candidates also clashed on issues ranging from Pell Grants to gun control measures.

One of the most contentious moments came during a question about President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.

Ayotte is one of the Republican senators refusing to hold hearings on nominee Merrick Garland until a new president is elected.

The senator said she believes it’s important to let the American people weigh in on a new Supreme Court justice by electing a new president.

Hassan slammed those actions, saying Senate Republicans are simply trying to move gridlock from one branch of government to another.

“We do have divided government and often, unfortunately the executive branch and the legislative branch have been at odds. It was the Supreme Court that served as kind of a tie-breaker for that,” Hassan said. “And Sen. Ayotte and her party decided to bring gridlock as they have to their work in Congress to the court.”

Another point of contention was over Pell Grants, a federal subsidy to help students pay for college.

Ayotte denied voting for budget bills with significant cuts to Pell Grants, as well as later voting against an amendment to restore the money.

“That’s not true; that budget resolution did not cut Pell Grants. What it did was make sure there was annual oversight over the spending of Pell Grants,” she said, adding that she has worked to expand the amount of federal dollars going to students.

Hassan pushed back on that assessment, putting a number on Ayotte’s vote to cut education funds: $90 billion.

One thing the two were able to agree on was tightening security and vetting for refugees coming into the United States.

Hassan drew criticism from members of her own party last year when she was the only Democratic governor to call for a temporary pause in Syrian refugee resettlement after the Paris terrorist attacks.

She has reiterated that stance, saying states do not get enough information on refugees from the federal government. Ayotte agreed, saying Senate intelligence also does not have enough information on who refugees are.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)